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Orhan Kemal: Cemile (Gemilé)

The time is September 1934 and Pockmark Halil is not happy. Two things are bothering him. He is a camel driver, with his camels carrying the cotton around the area. He now fears the competition from motorised transport. However, he is still well-off, well-off enough to marry the Bosnian girl, Gemilé. (In Turkish she is called Cemile but the English translation calls her Gemilé). Though he can offer her a better life, she is not interested, primarily because she much prefers, Nejati, a clerk at the cotton factory where she works.

Her father, Malik, and his friend, Muy, are Bosnian and they had fought in Bosnia for the Muslims against the Christian Serbs. They had a fearsome reputation. One day, however, they had been ambushed and lost many comrades. Muy had been injured in the leg but both men managed to escape. They decided it was time to leave and had come to Turkey. Unfortunately, they had no marketable skills and drifted around with their wives and children. Malik’s wife died and the two men ended up at the cotton factory. Both are now old men and have stopped working, with Malik supported by his son, Sadri, and daughter, Gemilé, both of whom work at the cotton factory. Muy’s daughter had been kidnapped and murdered some time ago but he has still not got over it.

The factory is owned by two men, Kadir and Numan. Kadir is uneducated and, indeed, illiterate and very much a rough character. Numan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He is rich, educated, cultured and loves to travel. He is not much involved in the day-to-day operation of the factory, happy just collect the profits, leaving Kadir to deal with problems. However, he does show up now and again. It is he who has hired Orlando, an Italian engineer, on a five-year contract. Kadir is not very impressed and the men even less so, not least because threads are breaking far more frequently now, which delays their work, means they produce less and, as they are paid, by piece rates, it means they earn less.

Two plots are being hatched. Glass-Eyed Sadik and Halil are behind both, together with the weaving supervisor. The first involves kidnapping Gemilé so Halil can marry her. The second involves attacking Orlando, in order to drive him away. The weaving supervisor, in particular, wants to get rid of him, as he sees him as a rival for power over the men and an influence over Numan, an influence he thinks he should have.

Kadir carries out a minor investigation and he learns, primarily from Sadri, that the problem with the threads is nothing to do with Orlando but deliberate sabotage by Glass-Eyed Sadik and the weaving supervisor, in a plot to turn the workers against Orlando. Orlando, who comes in late (with his dog!) is oblivious to all of this as is Numan. Meanwhile, Glass-Eyed Sadik and the weaving supervisor are deliberately stirring up the men against Orlando, blaming him for the broken threads. Meanwhile, Malik and Muy get wind of the possible kidnapping of Gemilé and, though they are old, they remember there is one thing they can do and that is fight. Both plots flare up at around the same time.

Orham Kemal had a very good reputation in Turkey in the second half of the twentieth century till his untimely death in 1970. The introduction in my copy of the English translation, published by Anatolia Publishing, a Turkish publisher, hopes that he will be better known elsewhere. Sadly, I do not think that that has happened, at least in the English-speaking world. Few of his works have been translated into English and none is in print. While this book was an enjoyable read, it clearly does not compare to the works of Turkish authors coming later.

Publishing history

First published by Varlik Yayinevi in 1952
First published in English by Anatolia Publishing in 2000
Translated by Cengiz Lugal